Over a decades-long career, Mr. Johnson backed a who’s who of jazz and rhythm & blues bandleaders: Aaron Neville, Allen Toussaint, Dave Bartholomew, Ellis Marsalis, Dr. John, Irma Thomas, Marva Wright, James Booker, Kermit Ruffins, Deacon John, George French and dozens more.
Since 2005, Mr. Johnson performed most Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights with trumpeter Jeremy Davenport’s band at the Ritz-Carlton New Orleans.
“He was the quintessential New Orleans drummer,” Davenport said. “He was one of the last great, authentic New Orleans drummers who knew all those crazy, funky beats. He learned them from the source.
“I don't think he considered himself a jazz drummer, but the reality was, he could play anything. Whatever he played had a sense of life and joy to it. Even with a ballad, he’d put his flavor on it.”
Mr. Johnson appears in at least two episodes of “Treme,” the highly anticipated HBO series set in the post-Katrina world of New Orleans music that is set to premiere in April.
He also shot scenes for the recently wrapped Nicolas Cage movie “The Hungry Rabbit Jumps.” Past credits include “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans,” the short-lived Fox series “K-Ville,” the Halle Berry project “Monster’s Ball” and “A Love Song for Bobby Long,” starring Scarlett Johansson and John Travolta.
He also appeared in the off-Broadway musical “Staggerlee” in New York and served as the drummer and assistant musical director for Carl Walker’s production of “Where the Girls Were.” He contributed to scores of commercials as an actor, musician and with voice-overs.
Mr. Johnson earned his nickname, “Bunchy,” as a hefty infant who looked like “a whole bunch of stuff in the crib.” He graduated from St. Augustine High School and earned a communications/theater degree from Xavier University. He went on to appear on stages and screens around the globe.
He was a member of the all-star "Joint's Jumpin'" rhythm & blues revue that performed regularly at Harrah's Casino New Orleans.
In five years at the Ritz-Carlton, Mr. Johnson missed only a handful of gigs that conflicted with his film or TV shooting schedule. He finished his night’s work at the Ritz around 1:30 a.m. last Sunday. During the show, Davenport got into an altercation with an audience member. Trying to lighten the mood, Mr. Johnson joked, “You want me to take the guy out?”
“We had a long laugh,” Davenport recalled. “Then he said, ‘I’ll see you Thursday.’”
Mr. Johnson died hours later.
Survivors include a son, Renard Johnson, and a daughter, Cherise Johnson Luter; a brother, Charles Prosper; and four grandchildren.
The memorial service is Saturday, March 27 at 11 a.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church, 1329 Jackson Avenue. Visitation begins at 9:30 a.m.
A repast follows at Sweet Lorraine’s Jazz Club, 1931 St. Claude Avenue. At 7 p.m. on Saturday, Sweet Lorraine’s also hosts a musical tribute to Mr. Johnson.
In lieu of flowers, his family requests donations be made to the Bernard “Bunchy” Johnson Gig Fund of the New Orleans Musicians Assistance Foundation and Clinic, 1525 Louisiana Avenue, New Orleans, La., 70115.
D.W. Rhodes Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.